The Elder Scrolls is probably one of the deepest and most involved video games in history when it comes to terms of scope. With five games in the main series, a bevvy of side-games, and a full-fledged MMO, it’s hard to imagine a similar series coming out that would have so much content. But the best part of The Elder Scrolls isn’t just the games themselves; it’s the incredibly rich lore the game’s setting provides. The fandom of The Elder Scrolls have debated for decades over the lore of this series, coming up with hundreds of outlandish theories, some of them even supported by the devs themselves in the long run.
One of the best features of The Elder Scrolls, in our opinion, is the massive quantity of in-game books that are available to read. Yes, you can read full-fledged books in The Elder Scrolls, just for fun! Some of them have tangible in-game benefits (primarily leveling up your skills, as the story of the book might include a scene relevant to combat or adventuring), but a huge number of them simply exist to be read. These books provide the bulk of the game’s inexhaustible lore, going over minor details of the cosmology, small scenes from history, or in-game works of fiction designed to entertain the imaginary inhabitants of Tamriel.
In our time as fans of The Elder Scrolls, we’ve collected our personal top five books inside The Elder Scrolls. We’re ranking these by personal preference alone, by how entertaining and readable each one is, and how engrossing we found its story. There’s much richer lore to be found in many other books, but if you want a good read, we think these top five are a great way to get into the universe of Elder Scrolls fiction.
#5: Bone by Tavi Dromio
Starting out our list is Bone, a short tale on the creation of bonemold armor. The Dark Elves of Morrowind are a strange race, even compared to the distinctly non-human species of sentients on Tamriel. One of their biggest peculiarities they have is their preference for “bonemold” armor instead of metal or leather. Bonemold, as its name implies, is created from dissolving bonemeal in liquid and casting it into a single piece of armor. It’s supposed to be lightweight, durable, and flexible compared to steel armor.
This haunting tale regales us with the first time bonemold was ever smithed, and the dire circumstances that would drive somebody to melt bone into protection. The tale begins with a Dark Elf slave owner trapped inside his own stronghold, surrounded by cannibalistic Nord barbarians, with no available water whatsoever. Facing the threat of death by thirst, the slave owner sends out a few slaves to fetch water from a nearby river, only for them to be set upon by the Nords and eaten. He tries again, after having his stronghold’s smith forge a few suits of scrap-metal armor for them, but the heavy and awkward armor reduces them to mere tinned food for the Nords. Leather armor from the carcasses of the stronghold’s dead livestock fares better, but the weakness of the leather made them no match for the brutal Nords.
The armorsmith then comes up with his idea to create armor from the sole resource left to him: armor made from bones. The bonemold armor is created, and another group of slaves are sent out. Only one slave returns, with a single jug of water, and the slave owner demands another group be sent out for more… requiring the creation of more bonemold armor. The only resource left are the slaves. And the slaves are full of bones.
Only a few days later, no slaves remain, either having been killed by the Nords trying to fetch the water, run off with their new armor, or died of dehydration waiting for the others to return. All that are left are the slavemaster and his armorer. And a strange sound begins to resonate through the empty halls of the manor. A wet sound, like footsteps. A sound of someone who wants their bones back.
This ghastly ghost tale is one of the best spine-tinglers in The Elder Scrolls, with a lengthy buildup leading to a horrifying crescendo. The only reason we don’t rate it higher is because of the abysmal framing device of a Dark Elf telling the story to their compatriots in a bar. The listeners chime in frequently to belittle the story, adding in snide and incredulous chatter that completely ruins the pacing. This includes someone saying, in the text, that they saw the twist coming!
#4: Palla by Vojne Mierstyyd
Palla, on the other hand, is a more straightforward horror story in the vein of Edgar Allan Poe. It concerns an unnamed narrator, a wizard by trade, who comes upon an unusual necromantic artifact: a small disc with the power to bring a loved one back to life. While at a social function representing the Mages Guild, our narrator meets their hostess, Betaniqi, a Redguard noblewoman who has moved to Cyrodiil after losing her mother and father. To commemorate her parents, Betaniqi has commissioned sculptures of them to reside in her new estate – revealing that her mother had died in combat with a horrible monster that had plagued their homeland. Upon seeing this statue of Palla locked in battle with Xarlys, the narrator falls in love with the stone.
They soon become obsessed over the mysterious Palla, and mourn the woman they never knew. They strike up a friendship with Betaniqi, mostly as an excuse to gaze upon the statue again, and talk about her mother so as to feed their own fixation. Then the idea comes to them: if the necromantic artifact can resurrect a loved one, could it work on a loved one they had never met? We won’t spoil the ending here, but it ends with the same kind of classic Poe twist that leaves you reeling. We’ll just say that Palla really does love them back.
If it wasn’t in The Elder Scrolls, we definitely could say this was an authentic Edgar Allen Poe short story. It even has the trademark Poe protagonist, the slightly nauseating weirdo whose obsession pushes them to the brink of sanity. It’s haunting, it’s repulsive, and it grips you with a stickiness that forces you to find out just how it’s all going to end.
#3: The Real Barenziah by Plitinius Mero
The Real Barenziah is a controversial book, both inside the games and outside. It details the early life of the Dark Elf queen Barenziah, her exploits as queen, and the tumultuous lifestyle she led. It has the award of being the longest book in the entire Elder Scrolls, clocking in with well over 20,000 words, and it must be divided up into five separate books in-game.
Barenziah was born to Dark Elf nobility in their homeland of Morrowind, but the imposing war with the Empire of Cyrodiil forced her to be sent away as a refugee to the neighboring Skyrim, where her cruel adoptive parents repressed her to the point where Barenziah ran away with a stable boy. Barenziah becomes entangled with the Thieves Guild, discovers her true heritage, rises to the throne of Morrowind and even becomes a consort to the emperor Tiber Septim himself.
Tragedy strikes when Barenziah becomes pregnant to Septim’s child, and he forces her to have an abortion. Barenziah’s heart is broken, but she soon falls in true love with Symmachus, a Dark Elf general in the service of Emperor Septim. But even this love is not to last, as Barenziah soon falls in with yet another miscreant, the mysterious bard Nightingale, who enchants her with rhyme, song and the chance for yet more adventure…
The Real Barenziah is a sprawling read, spanning over the length of a Dark Elf’s very lengthy life. Barenziah is a major character in both Daggerfall and Morrowind, and this book has been very controversial in-universe for its less-than-flattering depictions of both Queen Barenziah and the emperor Tiber Septim. But even more controversial is its explicit depictions of sex, including the astoundingly explicit description of Khajiit penis. It’s probably the only book in the entire series that’s been censored in later games! It’s a great read that gives you a surprisingly in depth look at one of the game’s characters who otherwise would be a mere distant presence.
#2: A Dance in Fire & The Argonian Account by Waughin Jarth
These are two books, but they’re both so good and parts of the same series, we couldn’t pick just one. A Dance in Fire and The Argonian Account are the adventures of Decumus Scotti, a mild-mannered clerk working for the Atrius Building Commission in the Imperial City. In both books he is sent to the furthest reaches of the Empire, first to Valenwood, home of the Wood Elves, and then to Black Marsh, home to the lizard-people Argonians, to seemingly suffer at the untamed wilderness these two provinces hold.
In A Dance in Fire, Scotti is sent to Valenwood under the spurious advice of his friend to come down for the business opportunity of a lifetime. Valenwood is in a lull between the two wars with Summerset Isle to the west and Elsweyr to the east… and unknown to Scotti, the war is just about to go hot again. Scotti’s caravan to Valenwood is soon set upon by Khajiit bandits, and he’s left to walk, swim, trudge, and crawl his way to the heart of Valenwood where his business associate awaits.
In The Argonian Account, Scotti, after returning home safely, is reassigned to the brutal swamps of Black Marsh after his success navigating Valenwood. The Imperial presence in Black Marsh is in total disarray, due to inexorable flooding, rampant bandantry, and intense difficulty exporting crops to Cyrodiil. Scotti is forced to navigate through the dire swamps and meet the sometimes bizarre inhabitants of Black Marsh to solve the problem in the best way he can: by doing absolutely nothing.
The Decumus Scotti series is both a hilarious comedy of errors and an exciting adventure novel in one. Scotti is such a mild-mannered milquetoast out of his league, confronted with the most extreme environments that Tamriel has to offer, that you can’t help but laugh. And yet Scotti manages to get the final word in both books, his deep-running well of determination and survival instinct driving him to reach his goal both times. The ending of The Argonian Account is probably the best part of both books, so we won’t spoil it here; let’s just say the answer to Black Marsh’s problems are much simpler than the Empire thought.
#1: 2920, The Last Year of the First Era by Carlovac Townway
2920, The Last Year of the First Era is the best book in The Elder Scrolls, and we’ll fight for this one. It’s a rollicking war drama playing out, as the title suggests, over the span of a full year during yet another war between an earlier Cyrodiilic Empire and Morrowind. It has a huge cast of characters, from the Emperor of Cyrodiil, to lowly soldiers, religious assassins, scheming advisors, living gods… The scale of 2920 is immense, to say the least.
And it’s the living gods that we like the most, and the primary reason 2920 is the top of our list. Vivec, Sotha Sil, and Almalexia, the flesh-and-blood gods of Morrowind, feature as major characters in 2920. These three are very secretive and reclusive, even in the games where they are featured prominently, so getting a chance to see them as the living gods that they are is nothing short of fascinating.
This isn’t to mention that the year 2920 is one of the most important years in Elder Scrolls history itself! You see, dates in the Elder Scrolls are divided up into “eras”, periods of time that can span up to thousands of years before a major event is deemed important enough to mark the beginning of a new era. The “First Era” was the longest era of those known (aside from the ones where time didn’t flow in a straight line). The events of 2920 lead to death, destruction, and sorrow on a scale that was unparalleled in nearly three millenia, to the point they felt like resetting the calendar was essential just to process what had happened.
And what death, destruction, and sorrow 2920 has! Our personal favorite character arc is that of Turala, a disgraced courtesan of the Duke of Mournhold, sent into exile after becoming pregnant with his child. Her arc sets up one of the most harrowing scenes in the entire book, crushing every chance of hope the story had for a happy ending and leaving nothing but despair and horror in its wake. It’s an amazing read. Please read 2920.
These books are only a tiny smattering of the writing available in The Elder Scrolls. Most people ignore the books that are available in the game, only looking at them once to see if they provide a stat boost. But those people are missing out! So the next time you load up an Elder Scrolls game, give the books you find a read. It’s worth it.